Better Know A President VIII: Martin Van Buren

18 02 2009


-Served from 1837-1841

-Elected from New York. (The first man to have done so, but not the last. New York leads the nation in Presidents)

*To clarify, New York leads the nation in Presidents to be elected from that state, and is tied with Ohio in that regard. Virginia (which claims to be the birthplace of Presidents) is home to 8 Presidents, but only 5 Presidents were ever elected from Virginia. This is a subtle difference, but I think that having a President being elected from a particular state is more important than them being born there. If this were true, Lincoln would be more closely identified with Kentucky (where he was born) than Illinois (where he actually started his political career)

-First President to serve that was not of English descent. He was Dutch. Dutch was also his primary language, not English.

-First President to be born an American citizen, not a British subject.

-One of only two people to have served as Sec. of State, Vice-President, and President. (The other being Thomas Jefferson) He also served at a US Senator from New York and it’s Governor for a little more than a month.

-The main event in Van Buren’s presidency was the Panic of 1837. Although he was blamed for it at the time, the large amount of the burden goes to Jackson and his financial policy. He thought that the government should let the market fix itself (a la Adam Smith). Rapid inflation, caused by the production of paper money without gold and silver backing up that money, is seen as one of the main causes. The panic ended around 1843, well after Van Buren’s Presidency.

-Van Buren was a pacifist. He tried to deal with opponents as diplomatically as possible. He wanted to deal with Mexico diplomatically instead of causing a war, after the Texas Revolution He was refused Texas annexation because of this. He also remained neutral in his refusal to help Joseph Smith and the Mormons, after persecution in Missouri, and his refusal to help the slave ship Amistad. He wasn’t a pacifist when he forced the march of over 13,000 Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma Territory, also known as the Trail of Tears. He ordered them to be round up, placed in camps, and then forced march them to Oklahoma.

-He failed to get reelected in 1840. The blame for the financial crisis largely went to the Democrats, you did poorly in the years before 1840 in Senator and Representative elections. After failing to get reelected in 1840, he tried to run again in 1844 and 1848, failing both times. In ’40, he wasn’t even nominated, and in ’48 he was nominated for the Free Soil Party. The Free Soil Party is one of the more important 3rd parties in American history. They, along with the Whigs, gave rise to the modern Republican party. Although their numbers were small, they had a strong representation in Congress. 2 Senators and 14 Representatives from the party were in Congress at one time.

-An episode of Seinfeld featured a gang calling themselves the Van Buren Boys with the secret sign of the number 8 because Van Buren was the 8th president. They apparently picked that name because Van Buren was the man they most admired. The gang is apparently “every bit as mean as he was”. (Shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia)

-In an episode of Pete and Pete, Little Pete gets a piece of cereal up his nose that distincly resembles Martin Van Buren. (Also stolden from Wikipedia. Sorry…Van Buren is pretty uninteresting…)


The term “Van Buren-ness” that was used during his time came from his evasinve attitude in politics. He was also called Martin Van Ruin by the Whigs during the 1840 Election.

A small fire once broke out in the kitchen while he was in the White House. Van Buren personally went to put it out during a dinner meeting. When he came back, Henry Clay, who was decidedly against Van Buren and had been for many years, said to him, “I am doing all I can to get you out of this house; but believe me, I do not want to burn you out.”

He often took the press too personally. Once, after a particularly bad article against him he said, “Why the deuce is it that they have such an intching for abusing me? I try to be harmless, an positively good natured, and a most decided friend of peace.”


“It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.”

“No evil can result from its (slavery’s) inhibition more pernicious than its toleration”

“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”